By Dan Bernstein
CBS Chicago Senior Columnist
Anything that decreases the frequency of something as silly as the NHL shootout is fine by me.
We can table the discussion of the loser-point for another day, but the idea that just being tied at the end of regulation merits better position in the standings is itself a recognition that what comes after 60 minutes of hard-fought hockey is already somewhat superfluous.
In a game that itself is one series of connected events after the other that build toward outcomes, the thorny problem of getting regular-season games completed in reasonable time has never had a satisfying solution. There will always be artificiality involved, which is part of the reason the sport is so compelling and so much more fulfilling in the playoffs – everything matters to a greater degree, and the same players keep doing what they have been doing until there’s a winner. Tiring and time-consuming, but simple and fair.
(The other reason playoff hockey sparkles is the absence of stupid fighting, of course, which is also a pointless, jarring disconnection from hockey’s compelling ebb and flow.)
Last year fewer than half of games tied at the end of regulation were decided in the five minutes of 4-on-4 overtime, and Tuesday NHL GMs relented to a push by the Players’ Association to change the format to 3-on-3, a decision expected to be approved by the league’s board of governors.
This is something untested, though the AHL last season used a combination of 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 in a longer OT that got three quarters of tie games decided without the shootout.
That would be a big step in the right direction, if the tacked-on skills competition remained more at the end of practices where it belongs, instead of deciding actual games. It has always felt like the equivalent of NFL teams going to a Punt, Pass & Kick event, baseball playing a couple extra innings before Home Run Derby breaks out, or having an NBA game conclude by seeing who makes the first shot from half-court. It’s just not the same game.
So bring it on, by all means.
Toews/Kane/Hossa against Crosby/Malkin/Hornqvist for the win? Yes, please. Or Sedin/Sedin/Vrbata versus Spezza/Benn/Seguin? Sure.
Coaches will be all over this right away, and options abound. Stay-at-home defensemen will likely find their participation limited, but expect the puck-movers like Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Shea Weber to be involved in some dramatics. There will be some unexpected strategizing depending on matchups, too, with the possibility that one team chooses to fall back and try to stall, preferring to take chances in a shootout with one or two reliable shot-makers and/or a goaltender on top of his game.
The larger story, perhaps, is that the regular season is an endless grind that’s only partially predictive of later success, with some of these standings points always seeming to mean more in the moment than they ultimately do later in the spring. Teams win on the road in the playoffs, and some night in Buffalo in January is long forgotten in the heat of a conference final. In fact, since the shootout era began in 2005-06, only twice has the Stanley Cup Final featured two divisional champions facing off.
So let’s have at it with 3-on-3. It’s the most talented players on the planet showcasing end-to-end speed and skill in their version of a cross-ice Mites jamboree, which could bring five minutes of odd-man rushes, tic-tac-toe passing plays, and sprawling post-to-post saves.
Letting entertaining hockey decide hockey games can only be a good thing.